A chapter in Design of Cities, by urban planner, architect and author Edmund Bacon, is entitled “Glory of Exuberance.” In it, Bacon cites Canada’s Parliament buildings and their governmental environs as “one of the finest expressions of Victorian exuberance in the world.” The glory of the work he noted is marked not only by its mostly neo-Gothic style architecture but also by its magnificent artisanship, particularly the hand-hewn masonry emblematic of the work of the skilled Scottish masons who helped build so many of the grand edifices of early Canada. Over the decades these 19th- and early 20th-century buildings have weathered and aged, their sand lime mortar washing away in places and other aspects of their construction giving in to decay. Thus it was that in the mid 1990s a committed group of government architects and planners moved to ensure that those buildings would be restored and fully modernized, not only their walls and roofs repaired but their internal workings brought up to the most advanced standards of heating, lighting, communications and other technologies. Few either inside or outside Ottawa have really known or understood what has been happening, but it is becoming clearer as some of the buildings are finished or near completion.
It’s one of those exceptional sunny days in Ottawa. Air crisp, a bright blue and cloud-free sky. On Wellington Street in front of Parliament, a sideways glance upward spots a building corner of soft yellow sandstone, then a shiny strip of new copper roofing. It is a coup de feu—Parliament Hill’s West Block, coming out from behind construction tarpaulins that have covered it for years. The work has involved a massive overhaul of this iconic building. For almost a decade it has been under wraps, enclosed in scaffolding, surrounded by construction cranes, the sort of gold-plated project seldom seen, if ever, in the private sector.
It is the first time we have seen the West Block since its dirty grey soot-stained façade disappeared behind those construction shrouds, and it will be some time yet before all the work is completed. The timetable is pressing, since this giant reworking of its facilities is intended to accommodate the new “temporary” home of the House of Commons when that chamber moves out of the Centre Block next year. The deadline is the first session of the next Parliament, which will be held in the West Block in September 2018.
These are the most important buildings in our nation’s life and their renewal is a long-term project. The aim is to bring the buildings into the 21st century and ensure their endurance for the next hundred years, along with various other buildings in that sector of Ottawa commonly known as the Parliamentary Precinct. The results will see a vast array of new members’ of Parliament and senators’ offices, committee rooms, entertainment halls and other brand-new facilities created to serve our political representatives and their teams when they come to Ottawa. It is an exercise in modernization for the benefit of the politicians, to be sure, but also supposedly for “the greater whole,” those for whom the occupants of these buildings toil.
Despite the size of the undertaking, few Canadians realize that Parliament’s Centre Block, the home of government in most Canadians’ minds, will empty at the end of the present parliamentary session. The Senate, too, will move elsewhere while our country’s centrepiece takes its turn to be updated. The domino effect of these changes, along with the expanding number of parliamentary members, has led to this succession of building restorations.
By the time the work is completed—it is already ten years in and slated to occur over 25 years at a cost of billions of dollars—the questions of who will benefit, what it represents in terms of our national government, and whether it enhances or adds to our sense of Ottawa as our national capital will become evident. Certainly, those who have planned it and are now in the process of executing this giant reno see their duty and objective as the protection of the most important national symbols in Canadian public life. Unfortunately, modern-day conditions—the implications of an unsettled world and its concomitant response by security officials—will inhibit ordinary Canadians’ access to the renewed buildings, and it will be a struggle to ameliorate this impact as different factions debate what is best for Canadian visitors when they come to physically visit “their government.”
Besides the general Canadian public, citizens of Ottawa have also remained largely unaware of what has been occurring, despite suffering street disruptions and seeing old buildings suddenly become construction sites. Some familiar landmarks, albeit federal ones, such as the Museum of Photography, adjacent to the famous Château Laurier Hotel, have been displaced and sent elsewhere in order to meet the needs of parliamentarians. But neither the local citizens nor Canadians have had any direct say in these Ottawa upgrades.
The concept of a long-term vision for Canada’s Parliamentary Precinct has been gestating since the 1990s. (The precinct stretches all the way from Parliament Hill westward to take in the judicial sector, including the Supreme Court and a future federal court, and also encompasses the buildings along Wellington Street just south of Parliament.) It is a renewal plan that successive governments and all federal political parties formally endorse, a rare case of those in charge in Ottawa taking the long view—perhaps not since Lord Dalhousie, then governor general and commander-in-chief of British forces in Canada, had the foresight in 1826 to secure the land on Parliament Hill for “future government buildings.”
Those original government buildings were started in 1859 and intended to be the seat of government when Upper and Lower Canada united. The handsome progress of the partly built neo-Gothic development struck the Fathers of Confederation when they “sailed up the river from Montreal on a lovely autumn day” in 1864 to view the site. It helped them decide that Ottawa might be an appropriate capital, if and when a dominion of Canada was created. (It was Queen Victoria, on the advice of her governor general, who made the formal choice.) Despite some early attempts to enhance Ottawa as a capital—with the exception of the post-war 1950 Greber Plan (the dominant force in the shaping of Ottawa’s growth for the subsequent five decades)—the current recent renewal project is one of the few times in Ottawa when plans have not been chopped or truncated or redesigned to serve practical political objectives rather than governmental needs.
The comprehensive strategy known as the “Long Term Vision and Plan” was officially endorsed in 2001. It identified a series of projects that included both the buildings on Parliament Hill and also properties designated heritage and acquired by the federal government across the street that would be refitted for government purposes.
The success of the LTVP so far is that it was developed with the whole range of governmental authorities with an interest in the work, no simple task in Ottawa. Among these were the National Capital Commission (NCC), which has its own vision for the National Capital, Parks Canada and the Department of Public Works (now Public Works and Procurement Canada), which is responsible for the actual care and maintenance of most federal buildings. As buildings aged or were acquired, a slew of individual projects sprang up. It was essential that the overall work be coordinated.
Missing at the outset was the representative of “the client,” in effect the parliamentarians and their staffs who would use the renewed buildings. This was remedied when the House of Commons appointed its own chief architect to speak for “the users.” That resulted in politicians helping to set the requirements in what became termed as “Building the Future.” Evidently, it was to be first class.
Physically, the work got under way in 2007 with the enclosing of the West Block and the stripping out of both the Met Life Building and the Bank of Montreal along the south side of the precinct. Things have held fast since then with one notorious exception. That was the sudden imposition by Harper cabinet members John Baird and Shelley Glover of the monument to anti-communism on one of the choicest pieces of land in the district, which had already been designated for a new federal court. After a furious public battle that raged on for over a year, this decision was reversed by the incoming Liberal government and the monument will go elsewhere. This unfortunate episode, intense though it was, has been the only deviation so far from the extended long-term plans that the LTVP laid out. The scale of the work is monumental, and no expense has been spared as it proceeds with budgets approved by changing governments regardless of political complexion.
Over the years there has been a perceivable shift in the manner in which Parliament and all its members connect to the city that is Canada’s capital. In fact, it is perfectly possible now for an MP never to set foot in the city proper, except to go home to bed. Amenities have expanded on the Hill to serve our representatives and include dining facilities, a laundry, a post office, banking, gymnasiums—a private one for the politicians and another one for general staff—and a daycare centre for the children of fee-paying parliamentarians and staff that is considered to be one of the best in Ottawa. It is a special world connected in some places by underground tunnels and known generally only to its users, including the parliamentary press. As the number of offices for MPs and senators has expanded beyond the Hill to nearby buildings, small buses, formerly green but now white, rotate around the district through the day, ferrying parliamentarians and their staff members to and from meetings and sessions in different locations. Other than for political business, which is, of course, the reason that these individuals are in the city, it is easy to live a cloistered existence away from regular city life, a life that is “all politics all the time.”
It is in sharp contrast to some other capital cities such as London or Paris, both of which are the commercial and cultural capital of their countries in which the seat of government is embedded. In London, one is as likely to meet an MP in a nearby pub—although this is occasionally possible in Ottawa, too—as in the bar at the Palace of Westminster. Even Washington, which until 1900 was perceived as a shambolic city, was finally organized and planned into a proper capital under the oversight of Congress so that visitors today know clearly that they are in their country’s capital. In Berlin, according to Berlin Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle, it is a natural thing to see Chancellor Angela Merkel and her fellow politicians regularly attending concerts (and paying for their own tickets, says Rattle). In Ottawa, it is less common if not a rare occurrence to see Canadian politicians turn up at performances at the National Arts Centre, except for special occasions. There have been recent exceptions. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has been sighted on several occasions at regular performances, sometimes with the prime minister in tow. But generally in Ottawa, the separation between “Town and Crown,” as identified by Queen’s University professor David Gordon in his book by that title, remains clearly evident. The renewed facilities will not diminish this.
Two major buildings, part of the plan, have recently been completed and turned back to Parliament. Both are south of Parliament Hill, just across the street; both were originally monuments to corporate power in the life of Canada. The first to go back into service has been the Art Deco/Beaux Arts–style Bank of Montreal. Built between 1930 and 1932 during the Depression, the construction created hundreds of jobs by the time it was completed. Until the Bank of Canada was created in 1935, the Bank of Montreal was the Dominion Banker. For “more than a century this building exemplified grandeur and dignity” writes one contemporary critic, and this has not been lost in the conversion. At a cost of $99.5 million, it is now essentially an entertainment facility for parliamentarians, replacing the Confederation Room in the temporarily decommissioned West Block, demolished while that building is being reworked. Much of what has emerged is outstanding.
The grand hall of the old bank is an awe-inspiring space, its long windows velvet draped, a magnificent decorated ceiling refreshed and the crafted ironwork on the exterior of the building renewed and gilded. A small patch of exquisite original parquet flooring remains at the entrance of what was once the bank manager’s office. There is a subtle new and elegantly simple glass annex attaching itself to the main building, providing additional smaller reception rooms and magnificent views of Parliament. Stringent security measures, introduced since the tragic 2014 murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and the killer’s subsequent dash into Parliament itself, are now imposed on all federal buildings, and there is allowance here at a new entrance for their onerous needs. Despite this cumbersome manner of entry, the grandeur and impressiveness of the former bank remains clearly evident in the building’s reuse.
Adjacent, just down the street, is another monument to corporate Canada, this one expropriated by the Canadian government in 1973. The Met Life building was once the Canadian headquarters of the largest insurance company in the world. Built between 1925 and 1927 and added to in later decades, it covers fully half the block facing Parliament and backs onto Spark Street. It was once a dominant element in Ottawa’s commercial life. Now, after more than three years of renovation at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars, it provides office suites for 70 MPs as well as state-of-the-art committee meeting rooms. A handsome research library, an outpost of the Parliamentary Library, is at the centre of the building for MPs’ research purposes. It is lit naturally by a large overhead skylight and has an artist-designed wall of copper cones using material recycled from the original copper in the building.
It would be difficult to overstate the richness with which this building has been restored, from the fine wood panelling used throughout to the reinstatement of its beautiful tall windows that once again bring in light and offer gorgeous views. Over the main entrance facing Parliament is a steel and glass canopy, resurrected and reinstalled. Just inside, in the outer foyer, a magnificent gold-touched glass-tile mosaic has been refurbished. First installed by the insurance company, it was intended to evoke the company’s values of health and well-being. This mural is outside the perimeter of the building’s security ring so that passersby can actually step in and look at it.
Unfortunately, public access to nearly all of this will be severely restricted, which is and will be the issue for much of the overall work. Heavy security is now a major feature in the Parliamentary Precinct, with every access covered by an army of guards in bullet-proof vests, bomb-proof glass cubicles for the examination of credentials, and airport-style metal detectors for ordinary citizens who wish to tour or visit their parliamentary representatives. High-tech streamlined solutions are provided for regular users of the buildings, but visiting our own government and its facilities will not be as simple for the rest of us. A future visitors’ centre now under construction on Parliament Hill designed to finesse this problem will not be available for some time and certainly not for this new anniversary year, which is expected to bring tens of thousands of Canadians to Ottawa to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.
One other project on the periphery of the Parliamentary Precinct is also an essential component. That is the retrofitting of what was once Ottawa’s main railway station before it was transformed into the Canadian Conference Centre and then virtually abandoned for public use after the disastrous failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accord talks, which occurred on its premises. After years of neglect and efforts to find a new use, it is now to be the temporary home of the Senate of Canada when senators leave the Centre Block in just over a year. The renovation is on a tight schedule. The new Senate Chamber in the old railway station must be ready by 2018 when the Senate moves in. The current work is engaged in peeling back the neglect of decades and maintaining, where possible, some of the hidden heritage treasures that have emerged. These include the tunnel under the road in front, which once gave train passengers easy access to the Château Laurier. Closed for years, it will now reopen to allow senators to cross the street without braving the elements.
The design architects for this enterprise are intensely mindful of the early history of this former railway station and the host of memories that it evokes. As for the public works department, which is responsible overall, it seems as if it has got religion when it comes to old buildings in Ottawa. Where once they would have been torn down and tossed away to make way for new construction, the emphasis now is for this loving restoration and conversion that we are now witnessing. A whole new strand of heritage architecture is finding a place in Canada, along with the skilled artisans needed to do the job.
How does all this massive amount of construction fit into the City of Ottawa and its desire, or not, to be the capital city of Canada? Despite municipal governments since the earliest days that have touted this claim, the relationship between local and federal governments has always been uneasy. The two have been on good terms when the federal government has provided monies for such basic things as much-needed sewers, while other times the feds have been labelled patronizing and heavy handed when trying to influence the city’s development and enhance the idea of a capital. The fact is the federal presence has provided Ottawa with its most beautiful urban and architectural features. Yet the relationship between town and crown has been marked with missed opportunities as far back as 1859, when work on the first Parliament Buildings began. Once the locals had secured Ottawa as the capital, they showed little further interest in developing its features as the seat of national government, but resorted to money-making local development and land speculation. Some of Ottawa’s most beautiful features—the Chaudière Falls, the shorelines of its two rivers on both sides—were mostly lost to heavy industrialization and (often foreign-owned) private enterprise. Complicated efforts are now under way to change all that. Just filed is an Algonquin claim to all the land under the Parliamentary Precinct.
The Parliament buildings, the city’s most outstanding feature—its Victorian gothic skyline created on its high bluff so eloquently described by Edmund Bacon—came under heavy assault in the 1960s when developer Robert Campeau aggressively challenged the height limits in the downtown area designed to protect those views. City Hall fast footwork led to his and subsequent developments that have resulted in the faceless, characterless filling-in of Ottawa’s downtown with the anonymous office buildings that have followed. These struggles continue, although the battle for downtown Ottawa is probably lost to greed. Corporate Canada has its share of the blame in this unimaginative construction, having frequently challenged or ignored municipal measures and bylaws designed to improve the downtown, such as efforts to control street-level wind environment, the animation of streetscapes, the development of a downtown arcade and attempts to contain buildings within height restrictions.
For its part, the federal government over the last several decades has progressively sterilized the area around Parliament Hill. This has included taking over the once highly successful Sparks Street Mall, described as one of the most successful pedestrian malls in North America in its early decades. The government gradually took over leases and managed the properties without deference to the needs of commerce and small enterprise that had enlivened the street. Its vitality lapsed and its demise was hastened by a transfer of energy caused by the construction of a suburban-style shopping mall, the Rideau Centre, in the city’s core. While present officialdom seeks to reverse this trend and put people and life back into this pedestrian way so close to Parliament, the long-ago compromises and disconnection make it a challenge for this to occur. Despite good intentions and lip service to protect the city’s older fabric, compromises have led to ever higher structures in the downtown at the cost of clear access and certainly of any views of the Parliamentary Precinct, except from expensive private penthouse suites now on offer. In short, municipal and federal authorities have never had the same vision or interests when it came to creating a capital for the country.
What, then, will all this vast and costly reworking of our most famous and iconic buildings mean to the capital city and to us as Canadians? In the view of experts such as Gordon, the importance of a federal capital as exemplary of a country is essential. We must have national symbols and these buildings are it. Canada undoubtedly benefited from the incredibly picturesque site that was originally selected, and the elegant choice of neo-Gothic and other classic architectural forms that echo in subsequent federal structures leave a lasting and impressive impact.
While local politicians have milked the relationship for all its worth, through the decades there has never been an overall commitment to a national vision. The limited precinct of parliament must serve this purpose.
And what is its impact? Standing now inside the enormous stone edifice that is the West Block, originally built to house departments that served government and now being redesigned to house government itself, is affecting. It is moving and evocative to be in the very space that, within a few scant months, will be the temporary House of Commons, perhaps for several decades to come. Inspired by Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, directly influenced by the writings of the 19th-century critic John Ruskin, the open courtyard of the West Block has been covered over with a new and modern glass roof using steel forms that echo the branches of a tree. It creates a chamber below, flanked by the wings of the old building, that mirrors the shape and size of our current House of Commons. All the furniture, from MPs’ desks to the Speaker’s Throne, will be transferred over from the old House as soon as the building is ready.
To stand in this space, which will be the true seat of government in our country, is powerful. It is a tribute to its design architects and the many teams and dozens of subprojects on the site. They range from the modern-technology engineers installing top-of‑the-line communication devices to the contemporary stone masons who have repaired the original 19th-century structure using the very stone (brought once again by rail from the original stone quarries in Ohio, Southern Ontario and locally) with the same methods as the Scottish masons who first built it. Many echoes of that era remain intact, down the long corridors where the prime minister will have his quarters and other offices that will house the most senior MPs. Adapting this old building to a new age is an incredible challenge, and it is no accident that the budget comes in at just under $1 billion. It is the work of a lifetime for the public servants in Public Works and Procurement Canada who have the good fortune as well as the heavy responsibility of dedicating their working lives to this Parliamentary Precinct project. Gold plated it is, but it is exemplary too of ideas and values that still seem to pertain in this wealthy and indulged country.